Translation started as an exercise in transcreation for me. To internalise a text in one language, to breathe life into it in another, and then to present it in a new avatar—that to me is the essence of translation. To translate is to navigate not just between two languages but between two cultures, a process that requires two independent thought processes to run simultaneously, and for the translator’s mind to be in a state of continuous decision making. When Bihar Se Tihar came my way I took it up as yet another project. But it soon turned out to be much more. What I had on my hands was not fiction, nor was it non-fiction—it was real life, at times far too real for the comfort of an urban mindset.
This explosive memoir of Kanhaiya Kumar kicks off in his village Bihat in Begusarai, Bihar, traces his journey to Patna and onwards to Delhi, and within Delhi from JNU to, finally, Tihar jail. Kanhaiya writes from the heart and his writing is direct and simple. So the challenge for the translator doesn’t quite lie there. What was important to capture here was the fact that even though there was no negotiating between two distinct cultures per se, it didn’t at all come across like that. So, you may well ask, aren’t Begusarai, Patna and Delhi all part and parcel of one and the same culture? Well, after reading the book the answer is, yes and no.
Religion as a divisive force is a constant concern for Kanhaiya, who is torn between the social norms of his village, and his inability to accept casteist injustice and untouchability.
What was challenging was maintaining an even tone while the narrative takes the reader from the dusty alleys of Bihat to the classrooms and open spaces in JNU, because aren’t we talking of the same country? Ostensibly, we are. Yet, there was a need to underscore the student leader’s angst, arising from belonging to two different worlds, set apart by a vast chasm of social and economic inequality, which prompted him to demand ‘azaadi’.
Kanhaiya writes about his underprivileged background, progressive grandfather, rebel father, an intelligent mother, issues of rural women, gaps in the schooling system, the rat race for civil services, the open-mindedness of JNU, the small-mindedness of the powers that be and, eventually, the long arms of the law, whose deadly grip can be a game changer for anyone.
Giving an insight into schools in rural and semi-urban settings, both government and private, Kanhaiya says, “what was useful was not taught to us and what we were taught was not useful”. But for Kanhaiya the struggle was not limited to the inadequacies of the education system. In addition, corruption, in its various manifestations, was rampant, making a farce of government welfare schemes. Referring to subsidised rations provided by the government, Kanhaiya bitterly recalls the popular lines questioning the integrity of the village head, the mukhiya:
Chhath ki cheeni, Diwali ka tel/ Bol ho mukhiya kahan gayel? (Sugar for Chhath, oil for Diwali, tell us O Mukhiya, where has it all disappeared?)
Religion as a divisive force is a constant concern for Kanhaiya, who seems torn between loyalty to his family and the social norms of his village, and his personal inability to accept untouchability and divisions based on caste, class and religion. Kanhaiya’s college years are a combination of studies, activism and tuitions, while living in a lodging that charges Rs 250 per month.
Not just infrastructure, natural elements also gain a different perception in different settings. Rains meant getting filthy with mud, damp cooking fuel and sattu for dinner. The roof leaked, making it difficult to sleep and there weren’t enough utensils to place under all the leaking points. “And so, I never liked the rains,” says Kanhaiya wistfully. Little wonder then that the Kanhaiyas of today are vocal about the injustices meted out to them, and surprising that they are not more cynical and bitter than what they already are—just how easy can it be to be living in the outhouse of a mansion all your life? It is an unequal world—but how much inequality can we accept and live with in the 21st century, where access to information has stepped in as the first equaliser.
My job as the translator of this eye-opening account of harsh disparities is over, but has the task of overcoming social and economic disparities begun? Or is it even going to begin in the near future? The first step forward, of course, is to lend an empathetic ear to voices like that of our thinking writer.
(Vandana R. Singh is the translator of Kanhaiya Kumar’s From Bihar to Tihar)